David Bruce, October 19th, 2016
WW: Hello. Today is October 19, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am in Detroit, Michigan. I am sitting down with Mr. David Bruce. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
DB: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
DB: I was born July of 1944 in the city of Detroit. I was born in Women’s Hospital in the colored ward. While I was being born, my father was in WWII, he was down in Guadalcanal fighting in the colored army of the United States of America. I lived on the west side of Detroit. Went to Thirkell Elementary, Durfee Junior High, and Mackenzie High School. I graduated in ’62. After graduation I went into the United States Air Force; I was in the air police. When I was discharged from the service, I joined the Detroit Police Department–that was March of ’66.
WW: Backtracking a little bit, what street did you grow up on the west side?
DB: There were a few streets. I grew up initially on Blaine, which was between Twelfth and Fourteenth. When I went to Thirkell and then after Thirkell I went to Durfee, and then to Mackenzie. When we first moved up, when we were on Blaine, it was mainly a Jewish neighborhood, so when we went to school at Durfee, we had the regular holidays, and we had the Jewish holidays. We were off during the Jewish holidays because most of our teachers were Jewish, so there was no school. So, we had it made at Durfee: we had regular holidays, Jewish holidays. The school was mainly Jewish and white back then; it was an integrated school. The neighborhoods, we still had Jewish people living there, and there were white people, Jewish and white. I can remember vividly, this one Jewish neighborhood, they would build a shanty or a shack in the entrance to the home, that was during one of their religious holidays. People were very nice back then, we really didn’t have a lot of prejudice back there, until I went to Mackenzie.
When I went to high school, that’s when I really experienced the prejudice. Our graduating class in 1962, there were only nine African Americans that graduated. It was predominately white. Across the street from the school, they had one restaurant for the black kids–that was called The Box–and then further down the street there was a pizza place, and that was for the white kids, so everything was more or less segregated. The only time there was more than one other African American student in one of my classes was when I was in gym or study hall. Then that was it.
Then I went into the service–
WW: Why did you join the Air Force?
DB: Well the Air Force–well, I just felt like I wasn’t ready for college. And so, that was a job, it was peace time. I joined the Air Force, I went to Germany, I spent three years in Germany, and it was a nice experience. I had my 19 birthday in Paris, my 20 birthday in London, my 21 birthday in Spain. So I got a chance to travel, and it was a very good experience. Back then, it was prejudiced, it was segregated. The bars were segregated, the German girls that went with the white guys, they were called cheeseburgers. The German girls who went with black guys, they were called hamburgers. It was prejudiced. It was right there: you could see it, it wasn’t covered up or anything. You knew who your buddies were, you knew who to hang around with, you knew who not to hang around with. That was my experience in the service. Then I joined the police department.
WW: When you came back to Detroit, after your time away, was the city still the same to you, or did notice any growing tension in the city?
DB: To me back then, the city was the same. I was out of the service only three months before I joined the police department. I saw my old friends and went back to the old neighborhood, there wasn’t anything really changed. The only thing that was changed was when I went further back to around Blaine and Twelfth like that, the Jewish people had moved, so it was predominately African American neighborhoods. That was the only change. When I went to Durfee, there was Boston, Chicago, Edison, Atkinson, Longfellow: those were extremely nice homes. They were all African American, and they were beautiful neighborhoods. There was no change that I could tell.
Then I joined the police department, and I felt some of the changes.
WW: What were some of the changes?
DB: Well, first of all, before my class, the city of Detroit only allowed two African American male officers per academy class. So when my class came up, there were nine of us and the class behind us was nine. So there was 18 African Americans in the police department academy for the first time in the history of Detroit. That was a big change there.
Then we went out to the precincts. I went to the Tenth Precinct, and there were only, approximately – on the day shift, we rotated shifts, so there was only about 10-12 African American police officers at the Tenth Precinct in 1966. They put us together. There was one time I worked with a white guy, and he only said seven words to me the whole eight hours, and that’s, "Are you ready to go to lunch?" I said yes, we went to the restaurant, I went in, I sat at the counter, and approximately two minutes later, him and two other white guys came in and they sat on the other side of the restaurant. After our 30 minutes was up, got the car, he showed up, and then that was it. We did our patrol, and he still didn’t say anything to me for the rest of the day. That was one of the main things, I said, "Well, you know who to work with, and you know who not to work with." That was the eye-opener right there. One white officer said, "You know, the only reason why we tolerate you is because you wear a blue uniform." That’s the only reason why things went the way they did. But there were some great white guys, that was only a couple out of 60-70 guys at a precinct. All total in the Detroit Police Department back in ’66, I don’t think there were over 450 African American police officers out of 5,000. You had to deal with it, you deal with it.
DB: That was it.
WW: Did that discourage you? Facing all of this racism, did you ever think, I’m just going to leave the police department?
DB: No, it was a job. You faced that in regular life, no matter what job you had, back then, and I would imagine sometimes now. But back then, the handwriting was on the wall. You knew what you had to do, you go to work, you do your job, made sure you did it right–we didn’t have all the bickering, well, actually the Tenth Precinct was 90 percent African American, so we didn’t have that much trouble. People respected the police, the police respected the people, 99 percent of the police officers respected the people, you only had that one percent that you knew who they were.
WW: When you say 90 percent of theTenth Precinct was African American, do you mean the populous in the–
DB: The populous.
WW: Oh, okay.
DB: Yeah. There were white people that lived, maybe on Oakman Boulevard, which was very nice. Russell Woods, that was a very nice area. Actually the whole Tenth Precinct, 98 percent of the precinct was very nice. There were only a few little pockets in the precinct that the houses were rundown. But other than that, the houses were very well kept. If you go around behind Henry Ford Hospital, you can see where they refurbished all the homes there, and the homes are going for $100,000. You look at La Salle Boulevard and Oakman Boulevard and you go to Chicago and Boston and that area, and the homes are still what I would call very, very nice homes. If you put those houses out in the suburbs, you would pay $5-600,000 because most of those houses were three stories, they had a finished basement, one story for the living room, dining room, kitchen, and they had bedrooms, and then they had more bedrooms on top. The houses are still very nice. The Tenth Precinct was a nice precinct. We didn’t have a lot of trouble. We had Twelfth Street, that’s where most of the pimps and prostitutes and junkies were, but it wasn’t that long of a stretch, it was maybe about six blocks right on Rosa Parks. That was the only kind of shady area. They had restaurants, barber shops. There was a movie. There was one bar there called Klein’s Show Bar that had top-notch jazz entertainers that would come in. They had Boesky’s Deli which was an extremely good deli. We had Hughes’ Barbeque. Altogether, it was pretty good, except you just had the prostitutes out there–that’s the only thing you really dealt with on Twelfth Street, were the prostitutes. The rooms above the businesses, that’s where the houses of ill-repute, that’s where the ladies of the night would take their customers, that’s where they took care of their business. But other than that, it wasn’t that bad.
WW: Did you notice any growing tension going into ’67?
DB: No. No, I really didn’t.
WW: Okay. And you were involved in the Blue Flu?
DB: I was there during the Blue Flu. It started with the DPOA, Detroit Police Officers’ Association, owned a building on Jefferson called the Sentinel Building. They would have dances and catering. And so the DPOA had a dance, Cass Technical High School had a dance at the same time. From what I understand, a couple of white police officers and their wives were on the elevator, and a couple of African American teenagers from Cass were on the elevator, some words were exchanged. I believe one of the students told his father, Nicholas Hood, who was a city councilman, or it was a friend of Nicolas Hood III that told him, and he told his father. They went into it they took the officers to court, and when the white officers went to court, that’s when white police officers called in sick for the Blue Flu. During that time there were officers walking up and down in front of the precinct, and we had a skeleton’s crew, usually there were about nine or ten cars working at the midnight shift, but we only had maybe about five or six that night. During the Blue Flu, things that showed prejudice was my partner, James Roby and I, they would put up a duty roster and behind our names we were called ‘N scabs.’ I was a roommate with Charley Henry, and I lived across the street from my parents, and they would call my parents’ house and say, "Tell you N son not to come to work." It went on like that for a couple of days. Then the riots started. After the riots started, they told all the ones that were off walking around on the Blue Flu picketing, told them to come back to work because they needed everybody that they could have.
WW: Were you working that Sunday night? Or Saturday night, sorry.
DB: Yes. I was working Scout 10-1 with Frank [Lappam ?], really nice guy. When the clean up crew, that’s what they called it – when they busted the blind pig what they would do was they would let the women go, and then they’d take the men to jail, and it was only a $25 fine if you were loitering. If you ran the blind pig, the judge would give them maybe a $250 fine. The guys that ran the blind pig would pay the fines of the people that were there. That’s how the blind pigs were. The clean up crew, mainly they had two African American officers, they had two white officers, and they had a sergeant. The duties of the African American police officers were to go to blind pigs, try to get numbers men, try to bust bottle joints–a bottle joint was where people would go to Chicago and buy liquor, they had liquor wars in Chicago, they would buy liquor, come back to Detroit – you couldn’t buy liquor on Sunday, so they worked out of apartments and they would sell bottles of liquor to you. That was the only place you could get it. White police officers, their main job was prostitution. They would go and try to get a case, so, that was it.
The night of the riot, like I said, I was working with Frank [Lappam ?]. My roommate, Charley Henry, was working clean up, and Joe Brown was working clean up. He was in the class behind us. They passed off Joe Brown as a basketball player for the Cincinnati Royals that were in town. They went in, they busted the joint. They got a call that said, "Well we need a car for uniformed presence." So my partner, Frank, said, "Well let’s take that run," scout 10-1 and take it.
So we got there, and when we got there, a crowd had already gathered across the street. They had already let all the women go because you couldn’t pat women down and it was a pain to take them to jail because if you had to search them, you had to call in Women’s Division; Women’s Division back then, they weren’t in uniform, they had their own division, they took care of boys under 10, rape cases, abuse, and that was it. They didn’t patrol or anything. So all the women were gone. There was this one guy across the street, he had a green polyester shirt on with the puffy selves, more or less like a Jamaican shirt, he was the one that was agitating. The auto got there, that was prisoner transport, men started coming down, getting into the prisoner transport. The last one that came down was drunk, I mean he was drunk-drunk. When he went to step onto the auto to go in the back, he fell. Guy across the street–the guy I call Mr. Greensleeves–said, "Look, they knocked him down." That’s when the bottles and stuff came at us. We started calling for help. We got everybody in the auto, took them to the precinct, and we were told to go meet at Crossman Elementary School which was on Clairmount and The Lodge.
So we were there, and everybody was sent to that area. We had to sit there in the parking lot and Lieutenant Ray Goode took his driver, and they went down to assess what was going on on Twelfth Street. When he came back, somebody had thrown a brick or a bottle through the window and hit him and he was bleeding on his–Lieutenants and above wore white shirts back then–he was bleeding on his shirt. So we sat there for a while, then we got WWI helmets, those flat helmets and they gave us those helmets. [phone rings] Lieutenant Reginald Burke took about 10 of us, and we went down on Twelfth Street, and we had riot batons and we were put in our riot formation, and while we were doing our little march trying to clear the area, people up on the roofs were throwing stuff down at us–bricks and bottles, people started sailing plate glass at us, and you couldn’t see the plate glass coming, but you could hear it fall. So Lieutenant Burke said, "Nope. Let’s get out of here." So we went back to our cars, went back to the Tenth Precinct, and that’s where we were for a while.
WW: When you first pulled up to the scene of the blind pig, was it normal for a crowd to gather for arrests?
DB: Oh yes, yeah. You figure it was still around 80 degrees, no air conditioning, people didn’t have air conditioning, they had window fans, so people were out in the street. It was right after the bars closed, so there was still people milling around on Twelfth Street. They used to have this guy would walk up and down the street, he had a little push cart, and he had hot tamales and hot sausages in it and he would sell both, so there were people buying that. The tamales and the hot–they were very good. He had a clientele on the weekend. There were people out. I guess they were just milling around, but they knew this place got busted, and they let the women go. They could see women coming out of there and no men, so they knew it was busted.
DB: So they started chanting, "Let ’em go, let ’em go." Like I said, it was only a $25 fine. $25 was a nice amount of money, but the blind pig owners paid for it. Really, there was nothing–you might spend a couple hours in jail and then you were let go, then you’d had to go to court three or four weeks later and that was it. It wasn’t strange to see people milling around that time of night.
WW: Earlier you said you weren’t anticipating anything massive happening that summer. What was the mood when you were waiting in the elementary school parking lot? Do you think that this is going to calm down or this is going to get bigger?
DB: We had no idea until Lieutenant Goode came back bloody and saying that the stores were being looted. There was a shoe store there called Cancellation Shoes and they had very good quality shoes, so people were breaking in there, stealing the shoes. They were breaking into the restaurants. The thing about it is white people were helping black people steal, black people were helping white people steal, so it definitely wasn’t a race thing, it was definitely–I guess they call it a "civil disobedience."
WW: What was your next step?
DB: Other than going back to the precinct and being at the precinct for–I worked 23-and-a-half hours that night. There wasn’t a lot that we were doing because they had to set it up where we could have three cars and a caravan. We had three cars, four police officers in each car, and go around and try to stop looting. People saw us coming, they would run, and we would go into the stores, lock up people. That was it. It was just containment, really.
DB: The State Police, they came in and we were still trying to contain everything, but we couldn’t. They brought in the National Guard, and I think National Guard had to be–I believe it was 100 percent white, I don’t think there were any black men in the National Guard.
DB: [Laughter.] When they came down, my opinion, I think maybe 80 percent of them were afraid. They’d never seen probably more than three or four black people at one time because I believe most of them came from up north. The other percent, they just didn’t give a damn. They say, "Hey, we’re here." [phone rings] They shot out all the streetlights. The National Guard shot out all the streetlights. This one house on the southwest corner of La Salle, very nice neighborhood, very nice house, National Guard drove down the street in their personnel carrier they had .50 caliber machine guns on them. I guess they claim that somebody shot at them with a .22, and they opened up on this house. I believe you can still see the .50 caliber bullet holes in this house–well, they didn’t go all the way through–but you could see where they chipped it off. I think it’s still there, I’m not sure.
One night we were riding around and there were shots fired on Virginia Park and Linwood. So we got out of the car, we went in the alley so we could run between the houses, and I was the fourth one coming through the house. First three got shot: Johnny Hamilton got shot in the butt, Frank Ball got shot in the arm, and I can’t remember who the third one was. I crawled out there to try to pull them back, but Frank Ball told me, he said, "No, don’t come out here," and as soon as he said that, four shots passed my head by about an inch. Now, I’m pretty sure it was National Guard, because they were shooting tracer bullets, and you could just see them coming. At that time, we were wearing motorcycle helmets that were white. I think they were just shooting at a target.
Then they came, they sent a tank, and the tank got there, and they opened up and fired and blew a house down. Now, those shots came from that area, but I guess they figured that you had three police officers shot, and the bullets must have came from across the street, but they didn’t. But they brought their tank in and they blew the house down, more or less.
WW: When you first heard that the State Police and then the National Guard were coming, did you originally have a sense of relief?
DB: State Police, people consider them very professional because they work by themselves, they have very large scout car areas. You have State Police that if they get a call, it might take them two hours to get there, and two hours to get back. So we figured the State Police, they’ll be more professional. I thought that the State Police were more professional. I liked them.
National Guard, we had nothing to do with the National Guard. But just watching them operate, like I said, I believe most of them were afraid, and they didn’t know what they were doing, so they shot at everything.
Then they brought in the 101st Airborne. They brought in the real professionals, and they’re the ones that came in and more or less calmed everything down. That was the end of the riot.
During the riot, they had put all of the black police officers together. So we were in four scout cars, four guys in a car. We were riding around one night and the dispatcher came on, he said, "We got four N males walking eastbound on Oakman Boulevard." And the senior man of the crew picked up the mic, he said, "What did you say, dispatcher?" And dispatcher said, "I said there was four N males walking eastbound on Oakman Boulevard." The senior officer said, "We’re coming down there." As soon as he said that, over there, "This is the Tenth precinct Desk. Report to the station immediately." They were going to make sure we didn’t go downtown. But the thing is, once we got there, communication was behind a steel door. The only way you could get in was to be buzzed in. There wasn’t anything we could’ve done even if we went down there, we couldn’t have got in. Then again, you didn’t even know who said it.
DB: It was the idea that here you are during the riot, you have a dispatcher out there dispatching people and he’s going to use the N word. That’s the way it went.
WW: Was there other examples of growing racial tension in the police department during that week?
DB: What had happened was, like I said, they put all the black police officers together so when other police officers saw us coming, even if they were doing something, they stopped. But most of them didn’t do anything really bad for us to even, really for us to have the confrontation. It was just that we rode around and we did our job and we really didn’t see abuse. But there was plenty of abuse. I know the prisoners we would bring into the station, it was hot back then. There wasn’t that much room in the precinct, so they put all the prisoners in the garage. One end of the garage was shut and they had a tank there with the National Guard. The other end of the garage, they opened the door halfway, and they had a tank there with a guy, National Guard, standing there with a .50 caliber machine gun pointed into the garage making sure that if you ran, you were going to get shot. But people weren’t going to be stupid enough to run and get shot, so it was just the idea that was really, really, really an atrocity right there: all the people piled into this one little area with the temperature the way it was, day and night. So what they did was they opened up Belle Isle and sent the prisoners to Belle Isle. I guess that was more humane. It was more humane than having 50-60-70 people packed into a little garage where you could just barely sit, barely move around. Couldn’t go to the bathroom, they weren’t being fed anything. They had to move those people out.
Then it calmed down. A lot of the white police officers transferred out and came out to the Sixteenth Precinct, the Fifteenth Precinct, Fourteenth Precinct that was predominately still white areas in the city of Detroit. In fact the northeast side of the east side of Detroit, that was called Copper Canyon, and I guess that was around Kelley or someplace out there–I’m not too familiar with the east side. But on the west side, more houses west of Telegraph, that was White Copper Canyon, houses from Telegraph east to Lasher, that was Black Copper Canyon. In fact this whole neighborhood here, at one time there was three police officers on that side of the street, two on that side of the street, three around the corner, two counting me on this.
DB: It was the area, mostly police officers. A lot of them moved to the suburbs, some of them moved out of town, and a lot of police officers down outside of Las Vegas because of the taxes. You have your up north, then you have some that went down south.
WW: The first day you mentioned that you worked 23 hours. What were your shifts like the rest of that week?
DB: The rest of the week, my shift was 12 midnight to 12 in the afternoon. We worked 12 hour shifts. Trying to find a place to eat was kind of hard [laughter]. Especially when you have 16 cops walking in the restaurant at one time. A lot of the people in the neighborhood cooked food, brought it to the precinct to feed us, so we got a chance to eat. Not a lot, but we got a chance to eat. It was better than nothing, I’ll put it that way.
DB: And that was the riot.
WW: You mentioned how white Detroit officers transferred out of the precinct. What was the reaction from the higher-ups in the police department?
DB: I really couldn’t say because I didn’t know higher-ups in the police department. There were only–was it two?–two African American commanders, deputy chiefs.
WW: I should say, was there a renewed focus on community engagement, or did you see, "We need to be stricter about policing," along those lines?
DB: I think that they said, let things calm down. That was the main thing: "Let things calm down." I can remember John Conyers and a few other higher-up black men went down and tried to calm the situation down a little bit. I imagine they talked to the police department and said, "Hey, you’ve got to hire more African American police officers." They started, but it wasn’t–it was a lot more than what it was before. Like I said, my class and the class behind us, that was nine in each class. So I think after that, they had seven, eight maybe African American police officers go on through. They tried to attempt to even things out. Like I said, back in ’66 there was only approximately 400 African American police officers on the job, and that counted maybe one, two commanders, maybe one or two inspectors, maybe 15 lieutenants, a couple of sergeants; there weren’t that many African American supervisors.
I remember one day I went up to the desk and I asked the sergeant could I get four hours court time–court time is where you went to court and you build up court time for going to court. I asked him for four hours and he said, "No, I can’t give it to you." And I was still standing there, and a white guy walked up, and he said, "Hey George, can I get four hours court time?" He says, "Sure, go ahead." I looked at him, I said, "I just asked for four hours court time, you told me I couldn’t get it." He said, "Well, you didn’t get it." Well, who was I going to complain to? We had one black sergeant, and he was in the Detective Bureau, and that was Norville Hendreth, so that was our only supervisor, and then after the riots, we had a couple more. It was a little bit better. We even got two black lieutenants, that was a lot better. You were put in a position where there’s nothing you can say or do really, and there weren’t that many African American police officers around, and there weren’t that many supervisors around, so you did what you had to do, you put in your eight hours, and you said, "Phew, I got through those eight hours." That was it.
WW: Did you think about leaving the precinct with those other officers?
DB: Oh no, uh-uh, no. I still had friends that lived in the Tenth Precinct. In fact, my future wife lived in the Tenth Precinct. No, I didn’t want to leave.
It was funny, a buddy of mine, Frank Staples, he was at the Fourteenth Precinct, and so he gets a call one day, and they go this house, and they take of whatever they had to do–he was working with a white guy–and after they left, the woman called the station and she said, "When I call for a police officer, I want a police officer, I don’t want an N police officer to come to my house." He said, "It was time for me to get out of that precinct, if the people don’t like you, then you know." Frank and I were partners, we worked together for a while.
The police department eventually got a lot better. In fact, I think right now that Chief Craig, he’s doing a hell of a job. He is. It’s gotten to the point where the Detroit Police Department is a lot more professional than most police departments around.
WW: Are you confident with the city moving forward?
DB: Oh yeah, yeah. You can see it. You can see Ilitch with his new stuff. And with [Karmanos ?] when he built Compuware. I keep getting a brain freeze with the guy that’s Quicken Loans –
DB: Gilbert. He’s come in, he bought up–not only did he buy up a lot of property downtown Detroit, but he bought up a lot of property in Midtown. From what I understand, people that work for him, he gives them a stipend to move into the city of Detroit. So if you look at Midtown and downtown, they’re building it up.
Out in the neighborhoods, my neighborhood is a great neighborhood, we still have a lot of mostly retired people out in this neighborhood. Parts of the outer city needs a little bit of help. There’s pockets on the west side, pockets on the east side that they need to tear down a lot of houses and do something with that property. I don’t think people realize how big the city of Detroit is. Not only do we have two cities within our boundary lines, you can take–I forget–San Francisco and maybe two other cities, I really don’t remember what they were, and you could put those cities inside Detroit. So our square footage is very large.
DB: Very large. Our population back when I was on the job, it was up to two million. I guess now it’s only about 700,000 if we’re lucky. We’re moving forward. You can see the baseball stadium, the football stadium, the new hockey arena, they talk about the Pistons coming to Detroit. Detroit, it’s getting there. It’s going to be a great city in the next five to ten years. It’ll be just like it–well it won’t be like it was when there were two million people here–but it will be nice, it will be real nice.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to share today?
DB: No, I guess that’s about it. That was the riot, how it started. One time, they were talking on the news, they kept saying that white police officers raided the blind pig, and I told my wife to get on the computer, it was Diana Louis, and I told her to get on the computer, I said, "Hey, wait a minute, it was two African American police officers that busted that place, Charley Henry and Joe Brown. They’re the ones that got in and busted the place." She said, "I just heard that there wasn’t all white police officers, it was two black police officers."
A lot of people said it was a race riot; it wasn’t a race riot. White citizens weren’t out there running around killing black people, black people weren’t running around killing white people. I believe 99 percent of the people that were killed during the riot were killed by the National Guard–maybe 90 percent, I won’t go that far, maybe 90 percent.
They said, it was never proven, but they said four white police officers went into the Algiers Motel and killed two black men and two white women.
WW: It was alleged that three white police officers and a black security guard killed three black men in the Algiers Motel.
DB: I was always under the impression it was four white police officers killed two black guys and two white women.
WW: There were two white women there.
WW: They were let go.
DB: Oh well. That’s how rumors get started [laughter].
WW: I did forget one question. Do you see it as a riot? That’s the term you’re using, or do you see it as–another term is ‘rebellion or ‘uprising’?
DB: Civil disturbance. Yeah, I guess it was a riot. It was a riot. I don’t think it was a rebellion. You have to realize that it started in the Tenth Precinct with, at that time, 85-90 percent African American. The homes that were burned down were owned by African Americans, or they were renting from white people. They burned down black businesses, black homes. Firemen went out there to put the fires out, people were shooting at them. It was, I think, it was a riot.
DB: It was a riot.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.
DB: Oh, okay.